Tag Archives: 21st Century Church

Sent Without Canoes

A Sermon for 8 April 2018 – Second Sunday of Easter

A reading from the gospel of John 20:19-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.  And remember, this story takes place later on the first Easter.  Listen:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.


If you’ve ever been west of the Mississippi – like to California, Oregon, Montana, or Nevada – then I’m guessing you are grateful for the adaptability of the men named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  It was 1804 and the newly formed nation just had acquired a huge expanse of land called the Louisiana Territory.  Wanting to know what they had gotten and determined to find a water route that connected the eastern United States to the Pacific Ocean; President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery under the command of Lewis and the one Lewis made his co-captain, Clark.

A book called Canoeing the Mountains, quotes historians who describe the defining moment of Meriwether Lewis’ life.  “He was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory.  The Continental Divide.  The Spine of the Rocky Mountains, beyond which the rivers flow west.  No American citizen ever had been there before.  This he believed was the Northwest Passage, the goal of explorers for more than three centuries.  The great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States.  With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life.  From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia; and beyond it, perhaps a great plain that led down to the Pacific.  Instead, there were just more mountains”  (Canoeing the Mountains:  Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger, pp. 87-88).  Captured in his expedition journal, Lewis writes:  “’Immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us, with their tops partially covered in snow’” (Ibid.).

Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains, writes:  “At that moment in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of an easy water route across the continent – a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus – was shattered”  (Ibid.).  It’s been said that as Lewis and the Corps stood atop the Lemhi Pass in what would become the state of Idaho, the geography of hope gave way to the geography of reality.  Though wanting to cling to the known, as all of us do; Bolsinger writes:  “Lewis wasted no time in casting off assumptions once the brutal facts of his reality were clear.  There was no water route.  There were miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks in front of them.  They had no trail to follow.  Food was scarce in this rugged terrain.  And winter was coming.”  Bolsinger writes:  “This is the canoeing the mountains moment.  This was when the Corp of Discovery faced for the first time the breadth of the challenges posed by the Rocky Mountains and came to the irrefutable reality that there was no Northwest Passage.  No navigable water route to the Pacific Ocean.  This is the moment when they had to leave their boats.  Find horses and make the giant adaptive shift that comes from realizing their mental models for the terrain in front of them were wrong” (Ibid., p. 93).  Canoes would not get them over the mountains.  That which had served them well thus far, no longer would work.

They could have responded to the challenge differently – especially because the order from their Commander in Chief specifically charged them to find a water route from sea to sea.  Bolsinger writes:  “They could have decided that they had indeed discovered the vitally important, but certainly disappointing reality that the long-hoped for Northwest Passage and its water route was a myth.  . . .  They could have turned back.  They could have returned to Washington, made their reports, and told Thomas Jefferson that another crew more equipped to travel long distances through mountain passes should be launched on a different expedition.  But they didn’t” (Ibid., pp. 93-94).  History is defined by this moment and all the other things they could have done.  Nevertheless, Bolsinger writes, “at that moment, without even discussing it, Meriwether Lewis simply proceeded on” (Ibid., p. 94).   Deep within, he knew – as did Clark and the rest of their men – to what they really were called – not just some specific order from President Jefferson; but as men of the Enlightenment – even if it meant they would have to learn a whole new way through uncharted territory – Lewis, Clark, and their men were 100% dedicated to discovery in service to others as what gives meaning to life.  . . .  They kept going – re-committing to the principles that lie in the core of their being.  Leaving behind the familiarity of their canoes, they literally left the map.  They journeyed on.

It’s one week after Easter; but later that night according to the gospel of John.  Though Mary Magdalene had come from her garden encounter with the Risen Christ, the other disciples did not yet know what to make of the news.  Frightened, perhaps, that when the religious leaders caught wind of the story that the tomb was empty; their own crucifixions would be next.  Pick them off one by one, over some talk of “he is not here but has risen.”  Until every last preposterous voice was silenced.  There were no known mental models for how to live after your dead rabbi had risen from the grave.  No easy course to travel after one who had taught and healed and inspired was crucified, dead, and buried . . .  only to appear to them alive again just a day after the Sabbath rest???!!!  Standing in their shoes, we too would likely lock ourselves away in fear.  Not knowing the next steps to take after Mary burst in to declare she had seen the Lord!  It was their defining moment.  The moment all of heaven held its breath to see what this little ban of humans would do.

The gospel of John tells the story differently than do the gospels of Matthew and Mark, where the disciples later are given the great commission.  The gospel of Luke links with Acts to expand upon the reception of the Spirit 50 days after Easter at Pentecost.  But the gospel of John tells that it was on that first night of the week, the very night the tomb was discovered empty; the Risen One comes to his faithful followers breathing peace, in order to send them out into the world.  Somehow, he expects them to release others from their sins – a charge likely to clear those who had crucified him; so that the hearts of Christ’s followers would remain open.  Pure.  Ready to give witness to a revolutionary love often unseen on the world’s stage.  “Peace,” the Risen One says to those locked in fear.  “Now go.”  Get on with it – all he had commanded them pre-crucifixion.  They were to live the peace of laying down their lives for another, even as he had laid down his own for the sake of all the world.  “By this,” he had told them just a few nights ago at the supper when he knelt before them to wash their feet, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Almost like Acts of the Apostles records in that part of chapter four that we heard earlier – though it seems like a hyperbolic exaggeration.  The vision of a beloved community enacted.  Living in one accord – heart and soul fully committed to one another so that all was freely shared for the common good.  Giving powerful witness in word and deed to the way God always brings new life.  Epitomizing grace as any in need found themselves filled.  According to scripture, these were the first marks of the ones who followed Christ’s Way.  No matter if the world around embraced the Way or not, together they journeyed on.

Theologian Marcus Borg – as many others – likens the moment in which the church today finds itself to be much like the moment those first followers faced on the eve of Easter.  Locked in fear for what might come in a world that seemed hostile to the Risen One.  Another wise scholar of today describes us as those needing to learn to be “apostles on both sides of the door” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, D. Cam Murchison, p. 404).  “The missionary people empowered by this peace and this inbreathed Holy Spirit to bear the forgiving, transforming love of God into every sphere of human experience” (Ibid.).  The territory isn’t entirely unknown; for the first followers found their way post-resurrection.  Scripture also inspires us with the way they did finally leave that post-resurrection Upper Room to continue the adventure begun by their crucified and risen Lord.  Changing the course of history day by day in witness to the One whose life, death, and life again showed the Way of the great Creator of the Universe:  the abiding strength of love that triumphs even over death!  . . .  Though the current terrain may be unlike anything the church has enjoyed – at least since the founding of this nation; it is not impossible to traverse.  For remember, we worship the One whose very own mother was told at the announcement of his birth:  “nothing shall be impossible with God!”  (Luke 1:37).  It’s what Easter Sunday tells us!  What resurrection is all about!  . . .  That even when we stand metaphorically at the Lemhi Pass in Idaho – nothing but mile after mile of mountainous, off-the-map wilderness before us; the Risen Christ comes to us.  Breathing peace.  Helping us to let go of our cherished canoes.  Saying:  “Go.  Get on with it!  As the Father has sent me, so I send you!” (John 20:21).

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Pit Stop

A Sermon for 28 June 2015 (Ruling Elder Installation Sunday)

A reading from Ephesians 4:11-13. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

And one more reading for today. From the gospel of Matthew 28:18-20. Words recorded on the lips of the Risen Christ. Listen for God’s word to us.

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Early this week, I returned from something called CREDO: a conference for mid-career pastors that is organized and funded by the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Considering the long view of ministry, from the time a pastor is ordained until the time we retire; it was the perfect pause for personal reflection on what this whole call to professional ministry has been and will continue to be about. I am grateful to you for the time to attend CREDO and I am grateful that our denomination is providing such a mid-life assessment for pastors to come away with renewed intention regarding everything from our personal health to our spirituality to our home life to our finances. As you support the Board of Pensions through the dues you submit each month, CREDO kinda is an extension of your care for us pastors – for the one stationed here at any given time and for the other clergy, families, and churches who end up benefitting from 30 or so pastors being a part of one of Presbyterian CREDO’s six sessions each year. So THANK YOU for being about this level of care – even if you weren’t previously aware that you have been doing this!

CREDO was a great time – though it was an exhausting schedule of 12-15 hour days, depending upon if you chose to get up extra early for optional morning exercise or stay up a little later in order to connect with other pastors from all over the country. . . . But one thing about my experience was disturbing. I heard pastor after pastor speak of how incredibly depleted they are. Burn-out was hiding behind every corner. Some of us are struggling to find time to regularly eat each day. Some of us rarely see our families. Some of us don’t even bother anymore to take time for spiritual disciplines because too many churches don’t value anything but the time they see their pastor sitting beyond a desk in a church office each week. This does not bode well for the present or the future of the Presbyterian Church. I admit, some of it is on us: pastors who need our own egos stroked so much that being everything to everybody all the time is our aim. Almost like trying to jump into the role of God for others instead of modeling behavior that keeps us all remembering that God is God and the primary connection for us all is to be there in that relationship with the Holy – for those in ordained offices as well as for the whole church. At the same time, I’ve been in this business in a variety of settings for two decades now so that I know that some of can be the church. Members who, for whatever reason, have expectations of pastors that not even Jesus himself could fulfill. In-side-out churches that circle up the wagons believing it’s all about them and their own preferences so that the Spirit of God isn’t even welcomed in. It’s easy to get there – either as pastors or as churches until we’re not much good for anything anymore. I think Jesus said it as salt that has lost its saltiness and has to be thrown out under foot to be trampled upon (Mt. 5:13). No zest for the good news of God’s unmerited love for the world. No joy over the ways God continues to bring new life to each of our days. No hope for anything being all that different tomorrow. . . . So just a side note here as your interim pastor: when you get to the point of face-to-face interviews with potential installed pastoral candidates; might I suggest you remember to ask them not only about the professional gifts they have to bring to you all, but also about their personal commitment to their own spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical life. And might I suggest that you all continue to be the kind of wise faith community that encourages intentional attention to each aspect of pastoral life because the health of a particular church is highly dependent upon the overall well-being of the pastor who seeks to lead each week. Ok. Enough sermonizing!

One of the greatest reminders from CREDO came Sunday afternoon at Worship for the Lord’s Day. The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson gave a rousing sermon speaking to the very concerns we had been vocalizing all week. He had a little suggestion for us all too. Instead of worrying about the fate of the church, he said, why not focus less on serving the church, and more on fulfilling Jesus’ command to seek first the kingdom of God. Everything else will fall into place. Seek first the kingdom of God. . . . Installation of ruling elders couldn’t have fallen on a better Sunday! Because what if all of us understood what we’re about here to be for the point of seeking first the kingdom of God? Empowering and equipping one another in order for all of us to be out in the world living the ways of God’s kingdom. What if we saw this sanctuary and the ministry of this church more as an oasis on the highway of life rather than the destination?

I’m not a regular watcher of Nascar, but I know that in car racing, when a driver needs something in order to continue the race, he or she pulls in for a pit stop. The quicker the better – as long as the time in the stop really is getting the car and driver ready to get back out there to finish the race. What if we understood everything about life together as the church as the pit stop we need in order to be out on life’s highway bringing healing, like Jesus did, to those carrying deep wounds? What if we came together here in order to head back to our daily paths to speak hope, like Jesus did to those who were living in desperately hopeless situations under the reign of Rome? What if we worshipped and studied and served here together so that, like Jesus, we could be makers of peace in this world because our own hearts are at peace in the joy of God’s love for us all? What if we, as the church, worried less about the church and more about living the ways of God’s kingdom? The primary concern that would make our joy complete. That would build us up as the body of Christ until ALL would grow fully into the life-giving ways of Christ? . . . How did it ever get to be otherwise, because the Risen Christ’s final charge wasn’t to come together to build a church building and then gather at least every Sunday if not more often throughout the week in the fellowship hall. The Risen Christ said: “GO! Out into the world! Knowing I go with you always!” (Mt. 28:19-20). There’s a message those out there need to hear. A kingdom-way-of-life they need to see in their midst. . . . Everything the ruling elders do, who are being installed today, and the rest that this church’s session does, should be for that purpose. Building you up as Christ’s body in order for you to be in the world as his hands and his hope. The job is not for everyone. Some of you are better equipped to be out there living the kingdom, while these elected ruling elders hopefully are at a place in life where they can be leading you and seeing to your spiritual needs so that you are ready to go. Ensuring that you, the saints, are properly equipped for your particular work of ministry. Out in the world being the body of Christ. . . . What if, o church? What if?

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

“The On the Go Jesus”

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

A sermon for 1 February 2015 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Click here to read scripture first: Mark 1:21-39 (NRS)

I grew up in a pretty small town so I can imagine the talk about Jesus going on back home. As the ladies of Nazareth gathered each day to go fetch water from the local well, can’t you just hear them cackling away: “And what in the world has gotten into Joseph and Mary’s boy? Thirty years old and he still hasn’t settled down. Is that boy ever going to commit? Out at the Jordan River near Jerusalem. Did you hear he went missing for something like 40 days? Who knows what in the world he was off doing!” Another one pipes in: “I hear he’s been hanging around the sea. Over near Capernaum at the northeastern corner of the district.” And another: “Well, what’s he going to do there on the edge of nowhere – or to everywhere beyond Israel, if he dared venture out of our land. I knew Mary wouldn’t make a proper Jewish mother what with her being pregnant during their betrothal and all.” Another woman jumps in: “If he was my son there’d be none of this racing all over Galilee stirring up the people. We need him back home tending his daily chores.” And another: “Some say he’s busting into synagogues everywhere talking about some sort of good news he’s heard from God. And my cousin in Capernaum claims he’s been healing on the Sabbath – breaking all the rules just so some woman could get up and feed him and his friends. After that, so many sick folks were brought to him, he had to get out of town fast.” Then back to the one who brought up Jesus in the first place: “O poor Mary. She deserves a grandson from that firstborn of hers but with the way he’s parading from town to town, I’m afraid she’d never meet him anyway.”

At least that’s pretty much how I imagine it’d go – you may imagine it differently.

Things are changing, but for most of human history, a whole lot of people believed we were supposed to be born. Grow up in our parents’ home. Get a job and settle down somewhere next door to your family to perpetuate the cycle. It’s the safe route to take. The secure one. Until interstates in America, we didn’t need government welfare programs because families took care of one another. They had to – they couldn’t easily get anywhere else. . . . It was how it was supposed to be in Jesus day too. Typical for multiple generations to live together under one roof. It’s not that a son and his wife and kids had no private space to themselves. When a boy got married, they just could have another room tacked on the sprawling village home that typically had a common courtyard with various rooms off it for things like the family’s animals, a kitchen, and spots for daily tasks. There likely would be a large room for eating and separate sleeping quarters – one for each family within the larger, extended family. Pretty much, sons stayed with their parents and daughters went to live with their husband’s family. Each person pitched in to take care of daily things like patching clay roofs, raising crops, grinding wheat, weaving cloth, and tending children and animals. A household was much more independent as a unit than we, individualized Americans are today. Together they settled in to take care of the necessary tasks of life. (See details in Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, pp. 40-45.)

You weren’t supposed to go off on your own – not just to one other village but to them all, as Jesus proposes to Peter after his first few days in Capernaum. No sooner does he call his first disciples, than he shows up in the synagogue of Capernaum on the Sabbath. A man with an unclean spirit – we’re not really sure what medical diagnosis. Perhaps something like a modern-day paranoid schizophrenic, he’s shouting at Jesus to stay away. Jesus is going to catch a lot of flack for it, because he ends up doing it so often; nonetheless, Jesus heals the man. Going about twenty paces from the synagogue into Peter’s large home, Jesus finds the bedroom of Peter’s mother-in-law to lift her up out of her fever. Again on the Sabbath. Even if some think he’s breaking rules, Jesus knows that Sabbath was made for restoration. And so he’s doing exactly that. One author writes: “Jesus’ favorite day to heal and restore was the Sabbath. He deemed that day most appropriate. . . . He’s liberating. . . . What Jesus does has nothing to do with work as it’s commonly conceived” (The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan, IBooks, pp. 188-189). He explains: “These are men and women, real people, with stories and histories, with hopes and sorrows. Jesus sees them, and in that moment of seeing, the other issues at hand dissolve. Jesus becomes single-minded in his purpose: he means to restore” (Ibid., p. 182).

It’s why he won’t stay in one place. Though the ladies back home might want him to settle down, though Peter and Andrew, and James and John too, might want to remain in their comfy homes; Jesus intends to be on the go. “Let us go on,” he says after a time of discernment in a few stolen moments alone in prayer. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38). The word he has, the healing in his touch, is much bigger than one village can contain. All over the world, hurting people need him. In every corner of every town, he knows there are others who long too to hear the good news of God’s love for all. Before it’s said and done, his instructions will be to go and do likewise. From Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, Acts of the Apostles records (Acts 1:8). He expects his followers not to settle in in one place for one exclusive group of people. It’s out he sends us. To be as on the go as he was.

Somewhere along the way, we as the church in America overlooked that message. Remember the good ole’ days when we could just give money to brave souls who would travel to exotic lands to be disciples of Christ as those who told the good news to people there who we assumed had never heard? Well, today in the United States of America, it’s entirely possible that your neighbor across the street has never heard of the unconditional love of God – even if they call themselves Christians. Never experienced the good gift of community that supports you when you’re down, and lovingly challenges you when you’re stuck in your own ways, and spurs you on to be as kind and gracious to everyone else you meet as God has been to us. All the statistics say that they out there are longing to belong, but they’re not about to come in here. They’ve heard too many horror stories, or have experienced them themselves, of finding something other than grace among the church of Jesus Christ. We’ve got too much of a history of sticking to ourselves and tending to our own – settling in with each other in our predictable daily routines. Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking together and taking care of one another. That’s pretty much the kind of covenantal love God’s always been about. It’s just that Jesus knows too many beyond our little circles are dying inside. They’re trapped in lives stuck on themselves instead of finding the deep meaning of life that comes when freely, like Christ, we give of ourselves for the benefit of others. Like a little child tugging on your arm when they’re ready to move on, Jesus persistently tugs us along to be as on the go as him. To look for those out there who need the words of life: that to God, they are precious and chosen and created for great thanksgiving! Forgiven and freed to jump out of their misery as fast as Peter’s mother-in-law does to serve the One who came to serve.

The on the go Christ is calling us all to be as on the go as him. Wherever we are, whoever crosses our path, to be God’s gracious gift to them that gives witness to the new life already begun in Christ.

May it be so . . . each of us always for Christ, on the go.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)